As Portlanders prepared for the holiday weekend our city’s school system released a statement announcing plans to “turn off all of its drinking fountains and bring in bottled water for drinking and food preparation for the remainder of the school year,” according to an article in today’s Oregonian. The move follows the discovery of elevated lead levels in the water at two local schools: Rose City Park and Creston. What Friday’s statement does not address is why the city schools department has been slow to act – and less than candid with parents – concerning this threat to our children.
According to the newspaper, water at Rose City Park tested at “as much as double the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s ‘action level’ of 15 parts per billion.” What has so many Portland parents concerned is the school Superintendent’s acknowledgement in an email last week that the city has known about this issue for eight weeks and neither turned off the water at the affected schools nor warned parents and employees while repairs were being made.
The city now says it intends to test all Portland’s schools over the summer break. That is critically late in and of itself, especially when one learns that “the last time Portland Public Schools did widespread water quality testing, 15 years ago, the results showed” 35 of the first 40 schools tested had “at least one location” with unacceptably high lead levels. Prior to that 2001 round of testing, the paper reports, “the last documented testing… had taken place in 1991.”
That is what makes this especially worrisome, and a potentially grave source of injuries to children: the fact that because so little testing has been done for so long no one really knows how widespread this problem is. Indeed, according to The Oregonian, the only reason the problem at Rose City Park was even discovered was because “a parent, concerned by what happened in Flint, Michigan, insisted” on having the school’s water tested.
We count on our city and state governments for better performance than this. As a Portland lawyer specializing in injuries to children but, more importantly, as a parent, I cannot understand how this problem was allowed to lie unaddressed for so long. Testing every school this summer is only the first step. As this scandal unfolds over the coming weeks and months the key question will be whether we as Portlanders are able to hold responsible officials accountable for their negligence on this critical public health issue in ways that let every parent know the true extent of the problem. Then we must ensure that our courts, the media and, most importantly, parents guarantee that school officials do not backslide, so that once this problem is promptly fixed it will never happen again.